10 cowboy actors who appeared on Gunsmoke before starring in their own Westerns
The road to stardom ran through Dodge City.
Because of its long and legendary 20 season run into the 1970s, it’s easy to forget that Gunsmoke was one of the first mainstream Westerns on television. It began airing before Fifties counterparts like Have Gun – Will Travel, Maverick and Bat Masterson. In fact, it even provided many early acting opportunities for future Western stars.
Here are ten actors you know from starring roles in later Westerns who first appeared on Gunsmoke.
1. Dan Blocker
Bonanza star Dan Blocker appeared in two Gunsmoke episodes before playing Hoss Cartwright. In the last episode of season one, “Alarm at Pleasant Valley,” Blocker had a small role as a cavalry officer with a great mustache, seen here. Eleven months before Bonanza’s premiere, Blocker stopped by Dodge City again in the season four episode “Thoroughbreds.”
2. Pernell Roberts
Speaking of Bonanza, Dan Blocker’s TV brother Pernell Roberts also appeared in Gunsmoke, both before and after his time on the Ponderosa. Before he was Adam Cartwright, Roberts was Nat Pilcher (seen here) in the Gunsmoke episode “How to Kill a Woman.” The murder mystery was written by prolific Western storyteller Sam Peckinpah. After leaving Bonanza, Roberts also appeared in the season 13 episode “Stranger in town” as a gunfighter for hire.
3. Peter Breck
Two other Western brothers both appeared on Gunsmoke before starring in their own series: Peter Breck and Lee Majors from The Big Valley. Breck actually showed up twice in Dodge City, first as cattle drover Fly Hoyt in “The Patsy” (seen here) and then as the injured title character in “The Odyssey of Jubal Tanner.”
4. Lee Majors
Gunsmoke gave Lee Majors his first credited screen role. His only other gig before appearing on the classic Western was a small, uncredited part in the Joan Crawford thriller Strait-Jacket. In the season 10 episode “Song for Dying,” Majors plays one son of a man bent on revenge. Roger Ewing played Majors’ onscreen brother right before becoming a regular in Dodge City as Thad Greenwood. Seven months after appearing in Gunsmoke, Majors would win the role of Heath in The Big Valley, only his fourth-ever onscreen acting gig.
5. Jack Kelly
Just four months before joining Maverick, Jack Kelly guest starred in the Gunsmoke episode “Jealousy.” Kelly played an old friend of Matt Dillon’s who comes do Dodge to work as a card dealer at the Long Branch. The story’s title comes into play when gambler Lonnie Pike starts false rumors that Jack Kelly’s wife, played by Joan Tetzel, is seeing the Marshal on the side.
6. Chuck Connors
Though Chuck Connors is best known as the heroic Lucas McCain in The Rifleman, his imposing size and demeanor also won him many villain roles. A few years before starring in his own Western, Connors played a violent bully in the Gunsmoke episode “The Preacher.” Royal Dano plays the meek title character who is constantly tormented by Connors’ vicious prize fighter. Ironically, Dano guest starred in many Rifleman episodes like “Honest Abe” where Lucas is incredibly kind and protective of the character Dano plays.
7. James Drury
James Drury appeared in four Gunsmoke episodes before starring in The Virginian. Drury’s time in Dodge City saw him play good guys, outlaws and a few naïve men caught up in the schemes of beautiful women – like in the episode pictured here, “Reed Survives,” costarring Peter Gunn’s sultry nightclub singer, Lola Albright.
8. Melissa Gilbert
Two years before she began her memorable and long-running role as Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, Melissa Gilbert first ventured into TV’s Old West in the Gunsmoke episode “The Judgement.” She played the daughter of a violent drunk in her first credited role. Gilbert went on to guest star in Emergency! and the short-lived NBC Mystery Movie series Tenafly before starring alongside Michael Landon in Little House.
9. Ross Martin
Ross Martin, who starred with Robert Conrad as Jim West’s fellow agent Artemus Gordon in The Wild Wild West, appeared in two 1958 Gunsmoke episodes. Toward the end of season three, Martin played a card dealer with a shadowy past in “Bottleman,” pictured here. His dandy outfit, complete with hat and vest, were a preview of his future days as a colorful secret agent. Martin made his second appearance in the season four episode “Land Deal.”
10. Leif Erickson
Leif Erickson, born William Wycliffe Anderson, was a prolific character actor in many movies and TV Westerns before starring as ranch owner Big John Cannon in The High Chaparral. One such guest spot, just months before becoming Mr. Cannon, was in the season 12 Gunsmoke episode “Saturday Night.” Erickson plays a cattle drover who saves Matt and helps him escort a prisoner to Dodge.